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Bengal-Delhi spat eases after much ‘pain’

New Delhi, Jan. 27: The Centre and Bengal have more or less sorted out a tussle over rural job scheme funds, but only after a bitter blame game during which a Union minister wrote to Mamata Banerjee how her ministers’ “wild” attacks had left him “extremely pained”.

The Centre had stopped the flow of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act funds to Bengal because of its alleged failure to spend the money already sent.

Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh wrote twice to the chief minister highlighting the scheme’s poor implementation in Bengal. But the Mamata government kept dismissing the charge that large sums were lying unutilised with the state’s gram panchayats.

On January 18, Ramesh reacted strongly to criticism from his Bengal counterpart Subrata Mukherjee and state finance minister Amit Mitra.

He wrote to Mamata he was “extremely pained and distressed” to learn that “you had asked two of your senior ministers, Shri Subrata Mukherjee and Dr Amit Mitra, to publicly criticise the government of India for not releasing funds to West Bengal”.

“It is most unfortunate that wild and baseless allegations have been made against the central government.”

According to the Centre, Rs 584 crore out of the Rs 2,314 crore it had sent in April last year was parked with Bengal’s gram panchayats as on December 15 last year.

Mukherjee wrote back to Ramesh last week, again denying his allegation about unspent money.

Bengal rural development secretary Saurabh Das today told The Telegraph the gram panchayats had utilised the unspent amount, thus indirectly confirming that the Centre’s initial charge was not baseless.

“As of today, our balance is minus Rs 0.48 crore. The unspent amount, as raised by the Centre, has been spent in the past one month,” Das said.

Sources in Delhi said the Centre was now likely to send fresh funds to Bengal. The state has demanded the immediate release of Rs 1,500 crore for the continuation of projects under the scheme, which guarantees up to 100 days’ work a year to poor rural households.

On December 17, Ramesh had written to Mamata how, against a target of providing 22.6 crore person-days of work in Bengal in 2013-14, the actual figure by December 10 was around six core person-days.

The average person-days of work provided to eligible households in Bengal by December 10 was 18 days, far lower than the national average of 32 days.

Bengal sent a proposal on December 31 seeking the restoration of regular fund release but the Centre rejected it.

“Let me make it absolutely clear that funds are not a constraint for any state government provided it complies with the conditions associated with the release of funds,” Ramesh wrote to Mamata.

T. Haque, director of the Council of Social Development, a Delhi-based NGO working on social sector issues, said the local authorities in Bengal were neglecting the scheme’s implementation.

This apart, he said, rural Bengal no longer offered much scope for the kind of projects the scheme permits.

The Centre allows about 40 kinds of projects under the scheme, including land development, watershed management, renovation of water tanks and ponds, and construction of check dams.

Haque cited Bengal’s wet climate and past land development projects, including the building of embankments, to buttress his point.

Delhi is considering widening the list of projects under the scheme by including work such as brick-building.